A Letter from America

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by Robert E. Hunter

Where is America going at the start of President Donald Trump’s second year in office? Answering this question is particularly difficult because so few reliable sources of information exist in the United States. It is not just the peculiar nature of the nation’s Chief Executive, mercurial, impetuous, insulting, seemingly without a “core” and consistent sense of direction. (But be careful: he effectively employs this generation’s means of leapfrogging the media – the tweet — like FDR and radio and JFK and television.)

Even before he was inaugurated, Donald Trump declared war on most of the media, generally the kiss-of-death for a political leader. They have fully reciprocated. It is thus hard to find sources of information on television, cable, or even in American’s leading newspapers that is straight reporting on Trump and his actions and antics as opposed to “all anti-Trump, all the time.” Ironically, those of us Americans who need to understand the outside world must rely either on blogs or foreign sources. Further, public trust in all three branches of government – plus the fourth “branch,” the media — is at historic lows.

Despite the damage done in Trump’s America last year, three major, positive developments must be recognized: significant economic growth, further reduction of unemployment, and a steep rise in the stock market, a storehouse of wealth for the middle class as well as the rich. In time, these could have a positive effect on the average American’s views of the outside world and US economic engagement with other nations.

A distinction must be made between what the Trump administration has done that could have permanent consequences and what can be reversed. In terms of long-lasting effect for the world, most significant is the trashing of science underpinning policies to deal with climate change, coupled with Trump’s withdrawal last year from the Paris Climate Agreement. If in the future the Democrats regain control of one or both houses of Congress and the White House, that could be reversed, if by then it is not too late! In theory, the same possibilities for reversal also apply to trade agreements, notably TPP and TTIP, although the Democrats’ support for trade deals is not as robust as in the past, as they absorb lessons from the 2016 election.

Trump is not alone in having a negative impact on American domestic and foreign policy. The Republican majority in Congress, regularly at the mercy of its right wing, finds Trump a useful foil for its efforts to dismantle as much as possible recent decades’ progressive legislation and to drive US foreign policy in more hawkish directions. The domestic list includes getting rid of regulations that protect the economy, the financial industry, and hence the American people from another “2008.” International implications are obvious. There is also the new tax act that will further widen the gap between the well-off and the rest that has been corroding American society for more than a generation and willingness to be outward-looking.

In terms of foreign policy, the Trump administration has achieved the nearly-complete military defeat of the so-called Islamic State, though defeating it politically and rebuilding shattered societies has hardly begun. Further, under Trump the United States has not entered another war, although it has ratcheted up US military involvement in Afghanistan.

Most worrying is the confrontation with North Korea, which will soon be able to threaten the United States with nuclear weapons. Like its predecessors, the Trump administration cleaves to the fiction that achieving “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea” is possible. Yet Pyongyang sees what happened to Libya, Iraq, and Iran. Preventing miscalculations and potential disastrous conflict is not helped by Trump’s incessant bluster.

Two major areas of US foreign policy that most concern America’s allies are held hostage to domestic politics. One is the move toward a new Cold War. Perhaps the Russians were deeply engaged in trying to pervert the US election process in 2016. But was a Russian role decisive in Trump’s election and Hillary Clinton’s defeat? Given everything else that was wrong with the Democrats’ campaign, it is hard to believe that the Kremlin tipped the scales. But the issue resonates in American politics, both for many Democrats seeking an exogenous explanation for Clinton’s failure and for Trump’s opponents as a politically-useful cudgel to try driving him from office. That may still happen, but the investigation by former FBI chief Robert Mueller has a high bar to clear in uncovering “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the Constitution’s criterion for impeachment.

The Western world is paying a significant price for this playing of the Russia card. Trump has been better attuned than any president since George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton to the fact that Russia cannot forever be kept down; and that, even with its misbehavior, some means for building bridges needs to be found. That effort has now been sidelined indefinitely.

The other domestic-politics-driven issue is, as usual, the Middle East, especially now the matter of Iran. Iran is not ten-feet tall, ready and able, as a Shia nation, to take over the entire largely-Sunni region. Yet commentators and officials across the US political spectrum argue that Iran is the chief source of the region’s troubles and the world’s leading promoter of terrorism, whereas that latter role has in fact long been played by Saudi Arabia. But the Saudis have effectively proselytized in the United States, along with Israel and its potent US domestic lobby. The distortions of US policy in the region will continue, crippling America’s ability to forge a comprehensive strategy based on US interests. Chances for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking are zero. Most important is preserving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, despite Israel’s efforts to get it overturned and Trump’s declaration that this year the JCPOA must be changed to be preserved. Here, America’s European allies have a major role to play.

Of greatest long-term consequence and concern abroad is the stunning collapse of America’s leadership role in the world and decades’-long efforts to promote a rules-based international order. The Trump administration’s reduction of positive American engagement has not been alone, of course, but is compounded in the Atlantic world by Brexit, which will severely reduce Britain’s effective role in Europe and likely end the “special relationship” with America.

The change in the culture of America’s sense of responsibility beyond its shores did not begin with Trump, but follows many years’ slow decay, not least the virtual bankruptcy of much of serious analysis in the so-called “thing tank community” and the failure to recruit into senior levels of government people able to “think strategically.” President Barack Obama complained about the advice he was given by the Establishment: “Just because we have the best hammer [military power] does not mean that every problem is a nail.” But he did nothing to remedy it.

Meanwhile, resources committed to non-military instruments of foreign and security policy have gone down while the defense budget has gone up. US foreign policy is being increasingly militarized, as made clear in two recent administration documents, the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy. Military instruments are also more “visible” and thus help to reassure Americans that the nation’s influence is not declining. There are psychological stresses when so many Americans resist accepting that the United States must come to terms with the inevitable rise of major competitors, notably China and Russia.

So, to quote Lenin, chto delat – “What is to be done?” There is no simple answer; much will depend on whether what has been happening to American society and the US role in the world will produce a “wake-up call.” Many people and institutions need to be involved; positive change cannot be achieved quickly, particularly given that the “rot” in the system has been building for years. The following is a short-list, none of which now seems achievable:

  • significant success by those Americans who understand that the culture of bipartisan American governance needs to be revived;
  • renewed understanding that a rules-based international society is essential, both for America and others; that, given contrary pressures, it will be hard to achieve; but that American leadership is indispensable;
  • major increases in resources devoted to American domestic strengths, notably in health, education, and infrastructure, also needed to undergird its role in the world;
  • recognition by the media that they need to share responsibilities for the future of the Republic, as more important than either ratings or the “bottom line;”
  • increased willingness of the private sector to support advancement of the public interest, on which everyone depends;
  • recognition by the US Supreme Court that its decisions related to elections – funding, voting rights, gerrymandering – need review, given their recently-negative impact on American democracy; and
  • renewed commitment to the principle that “politics stop at the water’s edge.”

Europeans need to understand their own shared responsibilities – political, moral, and financial – for the fate of the Western world and America’s role. They need to provide much greater support for transatlantic institutions and a vibrant, democratic “global commons.” This needs to include financial support for American non-governmental institutions and individuals, like that provided to Europe by the United States a half-century ago. Increased European engagement in America and promoting common interests need to replace today’s tut-tutting that Trump’s America is getting so much wrong.

Reprinted, with permission, from the Ambassador Partnership.

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Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.

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  1. Thank you Mr. Hunter. We know what needs to be done. I hope we see dawning awareness for the need to change, before too much more damage is done.

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